Dr. Greene's Answer
MsHopeful, I sense your beautiful mother’s heart in what you write. I can see how it must feel for your daughter when her baby cries and she cannot soothe her. I also see how it must feel for you when your daughter cries and you cannot soothe her.
The tears and sadness are not a sign of inadequate mothering by either of you. As magical as the journey of parenthood is, it often begins with a period of feeling blue sometimes called baby blues. A woman’s body is the scene of a powerful changing tide of hormones in the days and weeks after a baby is born. The rising hormone levels that gradually effected the incredible changes in your daughter’s body during the time she was carrying your granddaughter have now precipitously dropped.
Most new mothers, MsHopeful, (perhaps as many as 90%) will have periods of weepiness, mood swings, anxiety, unhappiness, and regret. Usually, this lasts for a few days or less and is quickly forgotten (it may have happened to you, even though you don’t remember!). Sometimes the blue period comes and goes for six weeks. For some moms, the blues don’t begin until the baby stops nursing (another time of major hormonal shifts). Hormones, however, are not the entire story…
Every new beginning is also an ending of what was before. Every ending is a beginning. Whenever a baby is born, the world will never be the same. This is wonderful. It’s also okay to grieve for the loss of the way life was before.
Now add to all this — SLEEP DEPRIVATION! Your daughter may be more exhausted than she has ever been. Whenever people are sleep deprived, they are more subject to swings of emotion and to feelings of inadequacy. This, by itself, is enough to cause a blue period.
And the baby’s crying: Research has shown that women with the postpartum blues tend to have babies who cry significantly more than those of their counterparts. It hasn’t been proven whether the fussy, crying babies make moms sadder, or whether the sad moms make the babies less happy — but it seems to me that both are true and that the crying is a vicious cycle.
A grief reaction, at a time of great stress (and insistent noise), in a person who is chronically sleep-deprived, all built on a shifting foundation of tremendous hormonal surges — it’s a wonder that postpartum blues aren’t more of a problem. Most of the time, though, the powerful positive feelings that also accompany this time of new beginnings soon displace the sadness.
Things You Can Do to Help Baby Blues
- Help your daughter get as much sleep as possible. If she is breast-feeding, she will probably feel sleepy just after nursing. Encourage her to take a nap. “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”
- Get your daughter out of the house. Even brief breaks can be very restoring, especially if you get outside.
- Release your daughter from as many of her usual roles and responsibilities as possible. At the same time, help your daughter to realize that she is not marginal to the household. She is an incredibly important person!
- Shower your daughter with praise and encouragement. Point out to her the things that she is doing well, the ways that she is becoming more adept at baby care, the magnificence of what her body has done in creating a new life. Let her know that you believe in her capacity to be a wonderful mother. Gently remind her that it’s normal and fine for motherhood to be an unfolding process. She doesn’t have to have all the answers. Over time she will be amazed at how skilled she will become in understanding and nurturing her child.
If your daughter can’t sleep (because she can’t, not because the baby won’t), if she doesn’t want to eat, if she loses interest in life or feels hopeless, if she is having disturbing or suicidal thoughts, or if the blues are lasting more than a week or two, this might be more than postpartum blues — she might have true postpartum depression. 30-75% of new mothers experience postpartum blues and 10-15% experience postpartum depression (Int Rev Psychiatry. 2003 Aug;15(3):231-42). Even though true depression is much less common than the blues, it’s important to seek professional advice right away if you suspect there may be a component of true depression. Her obstetrician or family doctor is a good place to start. Don’t let anyone brush this off. True depression is much less common than the blues. Professional treatment is important and is usually quick and effective.
Whether your daughter’s situation is the baby blues or full-blown depression, don’t minimize it. The weeks following a child’s birth are different from any other time in life. They are rich, complex, and often out of control. So take a deep breath. Relax. Pamper yourselves. Enjoy the little things. When life seems particular hard, take comfort in knowing that this time will soon be over. Though life will never be the way it was before, soon things will settle down. In the meantime, remind yourself and your daughter that this is a once in a lifetime experience that you don’t want to miss.